For those of you visiting for the first time, we are a group of bloggers from all over the world and we get together once a month to share our projects and traditions from each of our countries. This month we are going to focus on Christmas traditions in Greece. Let’s get started because I have lots to share with you.
Christmas season starts with the onset of St Nicholas day on December 6th and continues thru the first day of Christmas, right up to the Epiphany, January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas. It is an ongoing celebration here in Greece.
Here in Greece we call our Santa, Agios Vasileios, or Vasilis. He is the bringer of gifts and he comes on New Year’s Eve not on Christmas. He would be the Greek equivalent of Saint Nick. A kindly man who helped the poor and needy, he is also a saint and one of the three Holy Hierarchs. Unlike Santa, he is not jolly and plumb but tall and thin, with a black beard.
Of course nowadays, the children don’t think of the saint when they think of presents but of the jolly old man in a suit. For short we call him Ai Basili.
We also have a Saint Nicholas who is the patron saint of the sailors. But we celebrate him on December 6th. In our town that’s a big deal because we are a coastal town with a strong connection to the sea.
So if we don’t open present on Christmas day what do we do? Why we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ. We go to church in the morning and then settle down to a feast for lunch, usually Turkey or pork.
In the evening, we visit the homes of the friends and family who are celebrating their name days. In this case it would be Emmanuella, Manolis, Christos, Christina, and Hrisoula. Before the crisis, the tradition was to go out to the Bouzoukia and party the night away. But now we mostly stay home or visit friends.
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The Christmas Tree
In Greece, the Christmas tree did not exist until recently. In years past, it was the sailboat that was decorated with lights. Greece is a nautical country with thousands of miles of coastline and it was only natural that boats took center stage.
However it is with great difficulty that I find decorated boats these days. This one was in a bookstore window.
I had photographed this one last year at a local store. They are so pretty.
Currently, the trees have become a tradition. They’re not as prevalant as in other countries but you will find one, even if it’s small, in most homes. And they are prominently displayed in the town squares.
The Goblins or Kalikantzari are ugly elves that live deep in the earth. They are very jealous of us earth folks and spend all the year witling away at the tree that is holding up the earth. On Christmas Eve, they climb up to the earth because they are sure that the earth will topple over and they don’t want to get trampled. This is also the beginning of winter solstice when the sun does not move.
And so for the 12 days of Christmas they create havoc by going into people’s houses through the chimney, stealing food, and making touble. They are not evil but mischievous and stupid. In the villages, fireplaces are lit to keep them away. Another way to deter them is to place a colander at the front of the house. They will spend the whole night counting the holes and when morning arrives they’ll hide because they hate the sunlight.
On January 6th the sun starts to move again and so they must go into hiding. Once below they see that the Earth tree has regrown and they will start from the beginning to cut it down again.
On January 6th, the Epiphany, the priests come into the houses and bless them thus ridding them of any evil.
The Opening of Presents
In Greece the presents are opened on New Year’s Day. Since Saint Vasilis is our “Santa Claus” it is only natural that he should bring the gifts on the day we celebrate him.
Now this for me was a bit of a snag. You all know I was raised in the US and have alwasys opened the gifts on Christmas Day. I have many fond memories of staying up half the night gift wrapping presents for family. It just seems unnatural to me to have Christmas without presents. When we moved to Greece I simply stayed with this tradition. It also gave the kids more time to play with their toys before going back to school.
The Christmas Carols or Kalanta have a special place in Greek life. On the day before Christmas, the children get up early and with a “trigono” or Triangle go around the neighborhood singing the Kalanta. Tradition dictates that they ask before singing. The children are given money or sweets in return for their efforts.
We have many Kalanta, one for each holiday. They are traditionally sung on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and on the eve of the Epiphany or Day of the Lights (January 6th). In addition, each region in Greece has its own version of the Kalanta, sung with a topical flavor. Kalanta singing dates back to Ancient Greece. How’s that for longevity?
Desserts and Sweets
Melomakarona are cookies that are drenched in a honey syrup! My friend Katerina of Culinary Flavors has a great recipe for this most delectable of treats.
We also have a Christopsomo which is a bread with a cross carved into the top crust before it is baked. For New Year’s we have the Vasilopita cake. A coin is inserted into the cake prior to baking. Once the cake is cut, the person who gets the coin will have good luck for the rest of the year.
The Epiphany on January 6th marks the end of Christmas celebrations. On this day, the day of Christ’s baptism, after the church ceremony is over, everyone goes to the shore and the priest throws a cross into the sea. The most vigorous of young men will dive in to retrieve the cross and be blessed by the priest. This is not as bad as it seems since waters are not that cold here in Greece.
I want to wish everyone Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
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Monday 2nd of January 2017
Mary, this is so cool. I had no idea that Greece celebrated in this way. I love how drawn out it is, over a month, and that there are so many stories and so much symbolism to the Holiday Season. The mischievous elf story is fun. I love that they are thwarted each year, and I would be surrounding my house with colanders! LOL I also like how you have merged your traditions with those of Greece, I hope that you and your family had a wondrous Christmas and have a blessed New Year.
Monday 12th of December 2016
Hello Mary, it's interesting to see how thing differ. I'm born and raised in Belgium. Gifts (i.c. toys and things for kids) come with "Sinterklaas" on the 6th od December. No gifts on Christmas Eve nor Day and on the 1st of January you'll only get a present (mostly money) from your godparents (and give them a gift). On Christmas Eve we always had a lovely (and oppulent) meal and unveiled Baby Jesus at midnight. In Germany (at least where I live) they do not know "Sinterklaas" but there are loads of presents to be opened on Christmas Eve and you "have" to visit your relatives either on the 25th or on the 26th to give and receive even more presents (URGH!). There's an oppulent meal on Christmas Day (either at home or at your parents') too. Most people around here only put their Christmas Tree up on the 24th and it stays till either 6th of January or till February. There's a tradition of baking loads of Christmas biscuits too as well as having an Advent calendar and a Advent wreath (lighting a candle on each Advent Sunday). I do like the Advent Season, but I always put the tree up on the first Sunday in Advent. And I thoroughly dislike the many "have-to"s. Takes away the Christmas magic I love so much! Have a lovely day, Marjan
Monday 12th of December 2016
Εκπληκτική αναφορά στα έθιμα μας Μαίρη μου... έτσι για να μαθαίνουν και οι εκτός Ελλάδας τι γίνεται μέσα στην Ελλάδα. Γέλασα πολύ με την αναφορά σου στα μπουζούκια !!! Καλή εβδομάδα Μαίρη μου
Monday 12th of December 2016
How interesting to find other traditions Mary. I have never heard about those Goblins, and the ship decorated make so much sense being Greece a coastal country. The Kourambiedes looks yummy, I'll pop over Zografia to get the recipe, it could be nice to try food from other countries. I wish you have a Merry Christmas with your lovely family, my friend
Mother of 3
Monday 12th of December 2016
How fun! I love learning about celebrations in other countries. Thanks for sharing.